Church Music in the United States, 1760-1901. Essays by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer

June 30, 2015

Church Music in the United States, 1760–1901: Essays by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer. St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers in partnership with the Center for Church Music, Concordia University, Chicago, 2014. ISBN 978-0-944529-63-8. 311 + xv pp. Bibliography and index; musical specimens. Softbound, $24.95;



This is an important book. It started out in 1996 as an ambitious project designed to involve multiple writers contributing to a comprehensive history of church music on the North American continent. Noted Bach scholar Robin Leaver was to be editor. As sometimes happens in such schemes, a series of minor catastrophes seemed to undermine its progress: the scope of the project expanded into a multi-volume work requiring more contributors, more writing, and more rewriting and editing, just as funding was discontinued and some of the original writers slipped away. A decision was reached to abort the grand scheme and publish without delay the excellent essays already in hand. The two remaining author/editors clarify: “What you have before you does not purport to be in any sense a comprehensive history of church music . . . It is a set of essays, brief glimpses into some music and its background on a portion of the history
. . . ” They express the hope that the book “will add detail to the historical account, shed additional light on the subject, and stimulate others to pursue further study.” What we actually have before us is a stupendous achievement, a masterly treatment of an unwieldy subject, efficiently and attractively handled by two recognized scholars who are reliable experts. This book will prove indispensable to anyone involved with making music in an American church. 



The book falls into two divisions of six essays each. Part I: 1760–1861, is the work of David W. Music of Baylor University in Texas. Part II: 1861–1901 (Civil War and aftermath) is by Paul Westermeyer, professor emeritus of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The essays are models of clarity and are easy to read, uncluttered with non-essentials. Coming from quite different denominational backgrounds, the authors provide some new and interesting data. 


Part I

The titles display the unfolding narrative. Essay 1, “American Psalmody in the Northeastern States and Canada,” shows how British Elaborate Psalmody came into the Colonies and was adapted and developed. The essay describes the original work of William Billings (1746–1800) and discusses church music practices in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Two famous 18th-century Moravian organ builders are saluted: Johann G. Klemm and David Tannenberg built excellent instruments for many churches that otherwise would have had to import organs from abroad. The music of the Moravians is hailed for its unique quality and high standard, both instrumental and vocal. However, its insularity (Bethlehem, Lititz, and Nazareth in Pennsylvania, and Salem in North Carolina) limited its influence. Few other churches followed their lead. 

Essay 2 moves the story south. “American Psalmody in the Southeastern States” introduces shape-note hymnody (“buckwheat” notes) with William Walker’s 1835 Southern Harmony and folk traditions in Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. Wealthy Charleston is singled out for the active presence of organist Theodore Pachelbel, son of German composer Johann Pachelbel, at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church between 1740 and 1750. The first organ in the South was installed there in 1728. In 1768, neighboring St. Michael’s Church imported an organ by famous English builder Johann Snetzler. The instrument remained in service until the 20th century. 

Essay 3 takes up camp meeting hymnody, a response to early 19th-century revivalism during the Great Awakening, which had reached rural areas with few established churches (Kentucky, Tennessee, parts of Ohio, and places further west and south). Examples of the rich hymnody are provided: Promised Land, Shouting Song, and Sweet Canaan. Music of the Shakers (“Shaking Quakers”), Mormons, and Adventists is described before moving on to Urban Revivalism. The Second Great Awakening seems to have begun at Yale College in 1802 with the preaching of Timothy Dwight, Nathaniel Taylor, Lyman Beecher, and Asahel Nettleton. Influenced by the Age of Reason, these divines countered strict Calvinism’s rigid separation of “saved” (elect) from “damned” by allowing for a measure of human free will in response to divine will. This theological distinction is ably explained. Characterized by “protracted meetings” and restrained revival preaching (as exemplified by Charles Finney), usually held in town churches, it contrasted with rural evangelistic efforts. The proliferation of printed songbooks is described with actual proper titles, compilers’ names, and pertinent dates (normally frustratingly elusive). The Sunday School movement generated its own hymnody for children, an analysis of which concludes the chapter. 

Essay 4 deals with the important struggle for reform in the quality of music performed in American churches. Dr. Music lays out in clear detail the need for reform: the music of ill-trained American composers was “rough and uncouth” by European standards, essentially secular in nature, utilizing “vigorous dance-like rhythms that were entertaining but hardly promoted a devotional frame of mind” (pp. 90–91). Two great names emerge: Thomas Hastings of New York and Lowell Mason of Boston. In Boston the Handel and Haydn Society was formed in 1815 to put in practice high ideals of church music. These ideals are succinctly stated in six cardinal points by Mason in an 1826 public lecture:


(1) Church music must be simple, chaste, correct, and free of ostentation; (2) The text must be handled with as much care as the music, each must enhance the other; (3) Congregational singing must be promoted; (4) Capable choirs and judiciously used instruments, particularly the organ, are indispensable aids to services; (5) A solid music education for all children is the only means of genuine reform in church music; and (6) Musicianship per se is subordinate to facilitating worship. (p. 98) 


Do these 200-year-old principles seem now irrelevant, worn-out, and false? Who would dare to mention them at our denominational church music conferences and commercially driven workshops of the last half-century? 

Essay 5, “Antebellum Catholic Sacred Music,” reveals that at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Roman Catholics were concentrated in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The French Revolution (1789) had diverted many French clergy to America, giving a decidedly Anglo-French, upper-class cast to American Catholicism. But by mid-century that changed with successive waves of Irish Catholic immigrants escaping famine. In sum, “the relatively small numbers of Roman Catholics in the early years, the variety of nationalities and languages represented, the indigence of many immigrants, and ignorance of the Catholic heritage of church music combined to inhibit the development of comprehensive Catholic church music programs before the Civil War” (p. 110). English native William C. Peters (1805–66) is identified as a significant composer and publisher of Catholic church music at the time in Cincinnati.

Essay 6, “Choral, Solo, and Organ Music of the Period,” surveys antebellum categories of choral music, namely psalm and hymn tunes, fuging tunes, and anthems/set-pieces (American composers avoided the larger forms such as cantata and oratorio). The contribution of Moravian anthem composers is stressed as standing apart from Northeastern psalmodists and Southeastern shape-note composers. The Moravian anthem was a three- to five-minute choral work accompanied by strings and organ, consisting of two choral sections separated by an orchestral interlude, with an instrumental introduction and coda. The first such work written in America was by Jeremias Dencke for a Moravian synod meeting in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It seems American churches made little use of vocal solo singing except in anthems, but here again the Moravians were an exception. They developed two types of solo song, the Geistliches Lied (spiritual song) and the sacred aria, popularly used in the home. Johannes Herbst (1735–1812) composed over 225 such solos for the girls’ school at Lititz, of which he was principal. The more complex sacred aria was often performed in the Moravian love-feast. Very little Moravian music for organ has come down to us because organs were scarce and most organists were expected to improvise in the service. “Even the Moravians, who held the organ in high repute,” concludes Dr. Music, “apparently considered it to be primarily an accompanying instrument” (p. 140).

The casual reader can have little awareness of the Herculean effort in research required to produce these informative essays. David Music has seemingly unearthed every pamphlet and book, every scrap of printed music and texts rescued and preserved from the Colonial era and just beyond. He has painstakingly studied these treasures and given us six non-technical essays that brilliantly and genially illuminate the antebellum period in the history of American church music. 


Part II

In Part II, Paul Westermeyer picks up the narrative from the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 to the end of the century in 1901. In the first paragraph of Essay 7, “Revivalism, Sunday School and Gospel Hymns, African-American Song,” he summarizes the stupendous technological progress achieved in America after 1861. Church music reflected optimistic attitudes, and revivalism gathered new steam. To describe its growth as a straight evolution from Civil War songs to ragtime, however, is too simplistic. H. Wiley Hitchcock distinguished two parallel streams of music in the era: “cultivated” (requiring effort and valued for edification) and “vernacular” (less self-conscious and valued for utility or entertainment) (Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction, 1969, 43-44). Westermeyer refines Hitchcock’s two broad streams by isolating seven disparate musical cultures: (1) African-American song; (2) shape-note hymnody; (3) Gospel hymnody; (4) more ecumenical perception of congregational song; (5) performance mentality; (6) congregational and choral participation with chant, polyphony, and the chorale as ideals; (7) Charles Ives as a symbol of the coming changes in 20th-century musical syntax. 

The essay begins with the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening (Dwight, Beecher, Cane Ridge, Kentucky, Nettleton, and Finney) and the reforms of Hastings and Mason, followed by the Sunday School hymnody of Bradbury and Bliss, with Van Horne, Harbaugh, and Philip Schaff representing liturgical and sacramental concerns of the Mercersburg Seminary, declining into the sweet Victorian nostalgia of Alice Nevin. The conflicts of Sunday school hymnody also affected Gospel hymnody, represented by Moody and Sankey and Fanny Crosby, among others. The Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, through its music department, gave institutional and instructional embodiment to Gospel hymnody.

A discussion of African-American congregational song completes the essay, including Harry Burleigh, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Richard Allen and his AME hymnal (“wandering choruses”), and Black Gospel’s affinity with ragtime, blues, and jazz. 

Essay 8 describes the influence of Anglicanism (Oxford Movement) on American church music and the “Men and Boy Choir Movement.” This naturally involved the Episcopal Church in America but actually extended beyond that. Westermeyer uses the phrase “Oxford-Cambridge Movement” in recognition of two famous Cambridge undergraduates, John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb, who founded a Cambridge Camden Society. They studied architecture and came to the conclusion that organs and choirs, which occupy architectural space, should be relocated. That led to placing choirs in the chancel area. The organ soon followed, often divided into two halves. John Keble began the associated Tractarian movement at Oxford in 1833 with a sermon on “National Apostasy,” followed by John Henry Newman’s published Tract for the Times, which defended apostolic succession. The Tractarian movement ended in 1841 with Newman’s Tract 90, intended to explain the 39 Articles in the manner of the Council of Trent! Controversy followed. The great achievement of the era was Hymns Ancient and Modern, which had focus and breadth and became the model of the modern English hymnal. In the United States, vested male choirs became popular—and controversial—when they began to wear liturgical stoles for adornment, challenging a prerogative of the clergy. Other denominations were caught up in the movement. Opposition in America came swiftly from a group of laymen in New Jersey, who demonstrated at the General Convention of 1868, proposing that clergy not be permitted to wear vestments except “surplice, stole, bands, and gown.” Further, “candlesticks, crucifixes, and super-altars so called, bowing, making the sign of the cross, the elevation of the elements of Communion, and incense” were also to be prohibited. No official action was taken then,
or subsequently. 

Essay 9 describes the use of trained soloists, professional quartets, and orchestras, at first in wealthy churches such as First Presbyterian, Chicago, but later in urban churches nationwide. The Gilded Age, after 1880, encouraged such development, which led to the adoption of a concert mentality in the performance of church music, contributing to the popularity of Handel’s Messiah performances. The early churches in America had volunteer choirs of laymen to assist the congregation’s singing; by 1880 the professional quartet or octet performed for the congregation. By then service lists in some churches sometimes listed the Sermon, “like one more performance.” In such churches the very repertoire used reflected a heavy dose of 19th-century Romanticism: Dubois, Gounod, Guilmant, Merkel, Shelley, and Tours.

An interesting section on pipe and reed organs of the era and their literature sheds light on the increasing sophistication of church music. The large and important Boston Music Hall organ of 1863, built by the Walcker firm of Ludwigsburg. Germany, established a new European model almost unknown here. Aided by the newly formed American Guild of Organists (1896), higher standards of music-making were attainable. Dr. Westermeyer conveniently names and gives concise biographical notes on every significant organist, composer, and organ-builder of the era, essential information sometimes hard to access quickly, even on Wikipedia. The essay closes with the founding of important schools of church music on which our churches greatly depend. 

Essay 10 returns us to “The Roman Catholic Experience,” described geographically and culturally: France and the Solesmes movement, motu proprio (1903) and Pope Pius X, the authoritative Liber Usualis, the German Caecilian Society (John Singenberger) as a competing movement, and Irish Catholics described in 1870 as the “Immense Irish Silence” because of their perceived aversion to musical performance at church (“The Mass does not need music,” was an oft-repeated comment). Music publishing, performance in the parish, monastery, and convent, and widespread congregational reluctance to sing hymns complete the 19th-century picture. 

Essay 11 revisits church music “out of the mainstream.” White spirituals, Moravians, Mormons, the two German Confessional Renewal groups, Mercersburg German Reformed, and the Lutherans are described. A short sketch of the enigmatic contribution of Charles Ives, who challenged 19th-century musical assumptions and anticipated a 20th-century soundscape, brings the chapter to a climax. Recognizing the dilemma caused by his church music and his Danbury congregation’s inability to comprehend it, he quit his church job! Westermeyer comments, “The nineteenth century not only supplied the twentieth century church and its musicians with a rich musical heritage, it also presaged difficult challenges” (p. 247).

Essay 12, “Representative Music of the Period, Time-Line, and Summary” is mostly statistical and useful for reference. Choirmasters and organists will find many familiar titles and composers displayed, from Amy Marcy Cheney Beach to John Zundel. A most valuable timeline is provided, beginning in 1857 and continuing through 1901, providing handy dates for every significant milestone in church music of the era. A one-page summary reiterates the sevenfold streams or cultures previously defined and announces that the era set the terms of debate on church music for both 20th and 21st centuries. The concluding bibliography is comprehensive, up-to-date, and extremely useful.

As the 19th century recedes daily into the mists of the dim past, we church musicians—especially young ones—need a concise but reliable reminder of its greatness. Its enormous influence on our own era cannot be denied, however much it may be in some quarters resented. This book of carefully wrought essays is the finest possible source currently available. Extremely easy to read, it should be found on every organ console and every choirmaster’s desk. ν


John Moore Bullard is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, brought up in Charlotte, where he was inspired by organist/choirmaster Eugene Craft, a student of Marcel Dupré in Paris. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Bullard studied organ with Jan Philip Schinhan and earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in English literature. At Yale University, he earned M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees (Biblical Studies) while serving as organist/director in local churches. In 1961 Bullard became Albert Outler Professor of Religion and College Organist at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, retiring in 2001 after 40 years.  For 65 years he continuously served mostly United Methodist Churches as organist/choirmaster. An active member of the American Guild of Organists since 1958, Dr. Bullard was elected dean of the Spartanburg chapter in 1965–67.